Light and darkness

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Given our modern understanding of light and vision, we probably think of our eyes more as windows than as lamps. We know very well that our eyes do not produce light; they relay to the brain information that has come to light in the immediate vicinity. However, Jesus does not choose to teach us details of optics or biology. He chooses to warn us about how we use our eyes.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How can we know where our treasure is? Our eyes tell us where our treasure is. Our treasure is what we look at most often and most intently. Where our eyes spend the most time, there we have put our hearts.

If we pay more attention to the wealth of this world than to God’s eternal kingdom, then our treasure is in this world and our hearts are in this world. If our eyes can see only the things of this world, then we are living in darkness. We are blind to the things that matter most.

The wealth that blinds us is not always measured in dollars. If some other person in this world is the one thing we want to see all the time, we are still in darkness. If our goal is fun and entertainment, if it is power over others, or even if it is a worthy cause to make this world a better place, we remain in darkness. If we are looking most at our own thoughts or our own feelings, trusting most what we understand best or what uplifts us to the greatest heights, then we walk in darkness.

Even if we look at the good things we do for God, we still remain in darkness. Our help for others, our prayers, our fasting—all these things we do with God in mind. When we do these things for our own sake, or to be honored by the people of this world, then we travel in darkness.

We spend most of our lives in darkness, because our eyes are focused on ourselves and on the world around us. God has a blessing for us, though. His light shines into our darkness, and our eyes are opened to the kingdom of heaven. We see Jesus, and we learn what he has done for us. We see his blessings and learn about his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. We see the Light, and Jesus himself rescues us from the blindness that we had brought upon ourselves.

When we ignore Jesus and allow him to be eclipsed, we stumble in the darkness. God does not want to leave us lost in the darkness. Christ chooses to sine into our darkness; he chooses to bring us back to the Light. J.

Heavenly treasures

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Jesus has been discussing “practicing righteousness.” With these words, he appears to change the subject. Jesus has described how to give to others, how to pray, and how to fast. Now he addresses worldly concerns, such as worry, and loving money more than we love God.

Even if Jesus is making a transition to a new subject, this transition should not be viewed as a sudden change. His new thought remains connected to the previous thought. Jesus taught us to pursue our relationship with God while keeping God in mind. He tells us not to be religious (or “spiritual”) to impress other people. When people admire our holiness, their admiration is also a worldly treasure. If the admiration of other people for our holiness is the only reward we receive for our efforts, then all those good works are wasted efforts.

All the religions of the world agree that worldly riches are inferior to eternal riches. All religions agree that being wealthy in this lifetime is a paltry goal compared to the good that is possible for us in the future. Better teachers in the nonChristian world agree with Jesus that admiration from others is not sufficient reason to pursue a life of holiness and goodness. If we are going to be holy—if we are going to do what is right—we do good things for the sake of what is holy and what is right. We do not display our goodness to impress the neighbors who are less holy than we are.

Good deeds, prayers, and fasting, even when performed with God in mind, still are not heavenly treasures. These good deeds are done on earth, not in heaven. No matter how good we become, our good deeds can never equal the value of what God has stored in heaven for us, the good things that God has done for us.

Jesus lived a perfect life for us. He now gives us credit for the good things he accomplished. He freely gives us the rewards that he alone earned. Jesus fought the forces of evil, including death. He single-handedly won a victory; now he shares that victory with us. We will rise to eternal life in a new, perfect world; the power of that resurrection gives us strength even today. None of the things we do for God—not our gifts to the poor, not our prayers and fasting, not even forgiving those who sin against us—measures up to the value of what Jesus has done for us.

Jesus expects us to do good things. He expects us to strive to imitate his perfection. Whatever good we accomplish is not our treasure. Like money and other worldly wealth, our goodness in this sin-polluted world is easily corrupted or stolen. Our treasure is in heaven. Our treasure contains the gifts of Jesus, the blessings he bestows upon us. No power can corrupt those treasures or steal them away from us. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.

The Lord’s a Shepherd I don’t want

When I was a little boy, I misunderstood the meaning of Psalm 23, verse one. When we read, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want,” I thought that we were saying that we did not want the Lord to be our Shepherd. Only later did I come to understand that the verse really means, “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” Rather than proclaiming the goodness of the Lord and the sufficiency of his blessings, I thought we were confessing the depravity of our own hearts, our likeliness to wander away from the Shepherd who is caring for us.

“We all, like sheep, have gone astray,” the prophet Isaiah wrote. We are not content with the blessings provided by our Shepherd. He makes us lie down in green pastures, but to us the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence. He leads us beside still waters, but we have more exciting beverages in mind. He leads us on paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, but we want to strike out on our own and blaze a new trail for ourselves.

He teaches us to pray for daily bread, but we desire a larger supply and more variety; like the Israelites of old, we would soon grow tired even of the miracle of manna. He tells us to be content, forbidding us from coveting what he has given to our neighbors, but we covet all the same and try to keep up with their worldliness. He warns us against earthly treasures, vulnerable to rust and moths and thieves. He promises us heavenly treasures that cannot be stolen and will not spoil. When we talk to him, we tell him much more about the earthly treasures we want and say much less to him about the heavenly treasures he wants us to have.

Jesus describes the hired hand who abandons the flock. Undoubtedly, one of the temptations Satan offered the Lord was the opportunity to forsake the flock, to permit us to wander, to stop trying to care for rebellious and wayward sheep. Jesus said no to this temptation as he resisted all the devil’s temptations. He continually explores the wilderness, finding his straying sheep and carrying us back home. He even lays down his life for us, taking upon himself the penalty we deserve so we can belong to him forever.

If Jesus abandoned us in the wilderness, we would be lost forever. Instead, he provides for us in every way we need. He gathers us into his one flock, the Holy Christian Church. He guides us with his Word in the Bible and in the teachings of the Church. He blesses us in the Church, preparing a Table for us and blessing us with his anointing. He has blazed a trail for us across the valley of the shadow of death, assuring us that we are not alone even on that journey. Instead, we will dwell with him in his house forever. Meanwhile, his grace and mercy accompany us every day, for Jesus is our Shepherd, whether we want him or not. J.

Buried treasure and a precious pearl

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

At first glance, these two brief parables appear to reinforce the first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7)—and the greatest commandment—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). After all, these commandments are first and greatest because they are important. God created the universe. He made each of us. He has the right to tell us how to live. He deserves to be our highest priority. Our lives are best when we put God first and put everything else under him. If we could love God perfectly and unceasingly, we would never break any of his other commandments.

Over the centuries, Christians have made many sacrifices for God. Some have abandoned homes and families and jobs to live in voluntary poverty, dedicating their lives to prayer and to the service of God. Others have turned aside from opportunities for wealth and fame to lead careers in church work, receiving only a fraction of what the world would have paid them. Many have gone out on missionary journeys, spending long years far away from everything that is familiar and comfortable for them.

Moreover, Christians have been persecuted. They have been abandoned by family and friends because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. They have been driven out of their homes and their communities. Some have been fired from their jobs because of their faith. Some have been imprisoned. Some have been beaten. Some have been killed. They lost everything they had for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

But what of the rest of us? Are we unsaved because we have not given up everything for the kingdom of heaven? If we have not lost money or fame or popularity for the sake of the gospel, does that mean we are not truly Christians? Because we have not been rejected, fired, imprisoned, jailed, and killed, are we barred from the kingdom of heaven?

One of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven is that we cannot earn God’s love and mercy and grace. We cannot earn our salvation. Those who try to earn salvation are locked out of the kingdom. Those who plan to stand before the throne of judgment and demand that God give them what they deserve will be denied a place in God’s kingdom, because every one of us has sinned and has fallen short of the kingdom of God.

What, then, did Jesus mean when he told these parables? He did not mean to identify himself as a treasure or a precious pearl. Instead, he calls each of us buried treasure and a precious pearl. Rather than being a treasure purchased by others, Jesus is the man who gives everything he has to claim us for himself.

As treasure, each of us is hidden. We are buried under our own sins and under the world’s evil. With regret we recall the times when we did things God told us not to do. With sorrow we remember the times that we failed to do what God commanded us to do. With repentance we realize that we have not always given God first place in our lives. Other things have been more important to us than God is. We have not loved him wholeheartedly, because we have reserved parts of our hearts for other loves.

Seeing our sin, Jesus decided to rescue us. At the command of his Father, he willingly left his throne at the Father’s side and entered creation. He was born to a young Jewish girl, wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. The God who knows everything learned how to walk and how to talk and how to read and write. The God who is perfect and almighty grew up to be a man. Even as an adult, he remained in poverty—“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Of course the distance between the Son of God and the richest person on earth is far greater than the distance between the richest person and the poorest person on earth. Jesus humbled himself to be one of us, to be tempted as we are, to face the dangers we face, and to have the same needs we have.

Then, when he had lived a pure and sinless life for more than thirty years, Jesus even surrendered what little he had in this world. When trouble threatened, his friends abandoned him and denied knowing him. Brought into courtrooms, he was denied justice. Beaten, slapped, and flogged, he lost his health. What little he owned—the clothing he was wearing—was taken from him. Finally, after hours of suffering, he sacrificed even his life on the cross.

Jesus gave everything he had to claim his treasure. We were buried in sin, but Jesus paid all that he had to make us his people. Without Jesus we were no treasure, but now with Jesus we are treasure. To him each of us is like the finest pearl, for which he willingly sacrificed all, even life itself. Having paid that price, he says that now we belong to him.

Of course we should make God our first priority. We should love nothing more than him. When we fail to meet this standard, though, we have not lost our place in the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus is not a treasure that we have to find and purchase. The secret of the kingdom of heaven is that Jesus has found us and has purchased us. We belong to the kingdom of heaven, not because of any price we have paid, but because of the price Jesus paid to redeem us.

Woe to you who are rich

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25). Believers and unbelievers alike nod and applaud when Jesus scolds the rich. We know that he is not talking to us. He is talking to those people who have more than we have—those who could feed the world’s hungry and shelter the world’s homeless and cure the world’s ailing people if each of them just gave a fraction of the wealth they have acquired.

But who are these wealthy people?

If you have eaten today and expect to eat again before this time tomorrow, you are rich.

If you own more clothing than you can wear at one time, you are rich.

If you have a roof over your head and four walls around you, so that when it rains you do not get wet, you are rich.

If you can control the temperature under that roof, keeping yourself cool in the summer and warm in the winter, you are rich.

If you can press a button or two and be entertained by musicians, actors, or athletes, you are rich.

If you must control your diet and your exercise to keep from gaining weight, you are rich.

Explain to the impoverished people living in Asia and Africa your frustration when you set the TV to record a movie or a ball game and the recording is missing the last ten minutes of the production.

Explain to the homeless people living in American cities why you turn the thermostat down a degree or two after spending fifteen minutes on the treadmill.

Explain to Jesus why his scolding was meant for other people and not for you.

Yes, we all give at the office. We all support Christian outreach which includes help for the poor. Some of us donate our vacation time to take trips to other parts of the world where we can help those less fortunate than ourselves… for a week or two.

The fact remains that we are rich. Ninety-nine percent of the people who have dwelt on this planet could not even imagine the comfort, the medical care, and the entertainment that we take for granted. We are the one percent whom God has blessed with material comforts, not because he loves us more, but because he expects greater acts of mercy and love from us.

You will do more when you have paid off your student loans or your credit card debt. You will do more when you have retired from your job and have paid off your mortgage. You will do more once the government gets off your back with high taxes and too many regulations.

Jesus did not wait before he offered you help. He looked into this world from outside of time and saw your cold-hearted regard of your neighbors, your addictions to wealth and comfort, and your neglect of his most basic commandments. Jesus had compassion, not only upon your neglected neighbors, but also upon you. He set an example for you, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, using the power he had to make life better for others. His example has become a Substitute, so that when his Father looks at you, he sees righteousness instead of sin. As a Substitute, he became also a Sacrifice, so that when his Father looked at him on a certain Friday afternoon, he saw your sins and treated them as they deserved. Jesus thought of you that day. He said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

This forgiveness is not license to remain addicted to wealth and comfort, or to remain cold-hearted toward the poor. This forgiveness is wealth, and wealth is meant to be shared. As God has forgiven us, so we forgive one another. As God has given us hope of a better world, we share that hope with those around us. God loves us, and he teaches us to have his compassion toward those who need it the most.

Our treasure is in heaven, not on earth. Abraham and Job and Solomon were wealthy men, but God did not hate them for their riches. Like them, we can be poor in spirit, no matter how much we own in this world. Being poor in spirit is not measured by how much money you have; it is measured by how much money has you. When we judge ourselves by worldly standards, we know we are not rich, because we don’t even have enough money to buy everything we want. When we judge ourselves by heavenly standards, we know that we are rich, because our investment is in the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, and nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.

This wealth we share. We forgive those who sin against us. We share the hope we have in Christ Jesus. And, because God has blessed us with riches in this world, we do what we can, when we can, to serve God by helping others. After all, we were created to do good works, prepared for us from the foundation of the world. J.